The Over/Under: Radiohead

Corey duBrowa once wrote a 1,700-word review of Hail To The Thief for the Seattle Weekly, ushering in a wave of fan mail that read like sour times at the Target returns counter. Which evidently hasn’t disqualified him from issuing the following list of the five most overrated and underrated songs in Radiohead’s lengthy, critically drooled-upon catalog.

:: The Five Most Overrated Radiohead Songs
1. “Creep” (1993)
The one Radiohead song everybody knows and a staple of MTV’s early-’90s rotation (so ubiquitous that it prompted Beavis and Butt-head to offer up their own special brand of couchside analysis: “He’d better start rocking soon, or I’ll give him something to cry about!”). Pablo Honey‘s wanna-be masterpiece of self-loathing is totally of and for the era from which it came: the same school of angst music that Clueless heroine Cher Horowitz once dismissively labeled “complaint rock.” That said, His Royal Badness, Prince, delivered a killer cover of the song to cap off last year’s Coachella festival, which makes me believe that Radiohead’s version suffers more from affected, sneering put-ons and weak performance than from substandard songwriting.

2. “Electioneering” (1997)
I’ll be the first to go along with the prevailing critical meme that OK Computer is one of the finest albums in modern rock and easily one of the top 25 ever released. (Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list has it sitting at 162, but what the hell do those fuddy-duds know about music, anyway? Pitchfork rated it the top release of the ‘90s, which is decidedly more like it.) But for as much as I’ve professed undying fealty to this record, I’ve never understood the discordant, descending-chord pigpile that is “Electioneering,” its place in the album’s running order or its inclusion on the record at all considering some of the terrific outtakes that emerged from those sessions. Hitting “skip” to “Climbing Up The Walls” always makes me inexplicably happy, which is weird, considering how creeped-out that song is.

3. The entirety of Hail To The Thief, except “I Will,” which is borderline genius-lessons stuff (2003)
My favorite bit from the Seattle Weekly review-cum-novella mentioned above is this summary of the album’s various flaws, which apply to pretty much every other song in its 14-track, pretentious alternatively titled running order: “This is a band caught dawdling in the fierce tailwinds of a continental drift. How else to explain a song as lovely as ‘Sail To The Moon,’ a piano ballad that would easily qualify as one of the most stunning things the group has ever recorded, if it hadn’t already done the same damn thing two years ago with Amnesiac’s ‘Pyramid Song’? Even if you tried to build a case that [Thom Yorke’s] stringing along a narrative intended to thread multiple works together—and frankly, you can’t—it just sounds lyrically lazy (if nevertheless beautiful to behold, at first listen).” So it is overstating things, huh? OK. Then let’s instead just pick on Yorke’s solotronic joint The Eraser.

“2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm)” from Hail To The Thief:

4. “Life In A Glasshouse” (2001)
Just going on a hunch here, but I’m guessing that Amnesiac producer Nigel Godrich indulged in a bit of Method Acting stage-direction meant to inspire Radiohead during a particularly “down” moment in the studio: “Fellows, listen. On this take, I want you to play ‘Glasshouse’ as if Woody Allen got drunk, fell down a flight of stairs, plucked the clarinet out of his arse, then staggered over to the bandstand and attempted to play a new Radiohead song.” Uh, OK. Maybe the take after that can sound like “Mia Farrow chasing Woody down the street with a chainsaw, seeking revenge.” Or are they saving that one for the “guitar rock” album?

5. “High And Dry” (1995)
This track from The Bends had a lot to recommend it at first listen: classic chord structures, Yorke’s plaintive high-register vocals, a love-entangled lyric wrapped around the axle of a counting-it-down-to-zero love affair, a spy-themed video with a surprise car-bomb ending. Enigmatic, catchy and, ultimately (after a couple hundred times’ worth of hearing it), kinda slight. Radiohead would go on to do far better work (even on the same album; “Fake Plastic Trees” certainly fits this same mold, yet it clears a much higher quality bar), but for early fans, this song’s lovelorn mystique came to characterize Radiohead’s thinking-man’s-rock reputation. But hearing it today, you realize there isn’t as much to it as you originally thought. And they nicked the song’s title from Def Leppard (which had written about being both high and dry on a Saturday night in Sheffield more than a decade previously) or the Stones (who had done exactly the same thing, via a London filter, back in the mid-’60s).

:: The Five Most Underrated Radiohead Songs
1. “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” (1995)

You’d be hard-pressed to think of a band that has as much high-quality outtake/b-side material at its disposal as Radiohead. (Case in point: 2001’s Amnesiac is an entire official release of songs recorded during the Kid A sessions that were eventually deemed “good” enough for mass consumption.) This song comes from a 1994 EP (My Iron Lung) that may as well be a “lost” Radiohead album, given that it contains eight tracks (seven of which are unavailable anywhere else) of such consistently high quality that they certainly give those included on The Bends a run for their money. “Punchdrunk Lovesick Singalong” is anything but: a morose, layered ballad feting Yorke’s existential sadness for what seems like the umpteenth time. “A beautiful girl can turn your world into dust,” he sings, “I stood in front of her face when the first bullet was shot.” It’s perhaps the single finest thing Radiohead has recorded that didn’t merit an “official” release.

2. “Blow Out” (1993)
From its krautrockin’ beat to its squalling guitars (check Jonny Greenwood’s ectoplasmic six-string feedback tantrum at about the three-minute mark) to its subterranean-homesick paranoid-android lyrical bent (“Everything I touch/All wrapped up in cotton wool/All wrapped up in sugar-coated pills/Turns to stone”), Pablo Honey‘s “Blow Out” neatly prefigures the latter-day alienation and experimentation of OK Computer and beyond.

3. The entirety of Kid A, except “The National Anthem,” which is basically a big, lame blurt (2000)
For anyone who lived through the trauma and aftermath of September 11 at close range, this is the record that most closely approximates the free-falling terror, fear and isolation of that event in musical terms. “Everything In Its Right Place,” “How To Disappear Completely” and “Optimistic” (along with its ice-cold instrumental prelude, “Treefingers”) are psychologically imbalanced mini-symphonies that may spell out Yorke’s very particular form of antisocial adaptive behavior but ultimately form the backbone of the soundtrack for the new apocalypse. (P.S.: Kid A also makes perfectly appropriate background music for watching CNBC chart the downdraft of the post-modern economy. I’m just sayin’.)

“In Limbo” from Kid A:

4. “Lozenge Of Love” (1995)
Another one from the jaw-dropping My Iron Lung EP. (Normally, I would say stop what you’re doing right now and go to eBay or Amazon or wherever and just buy the damn thing, as it’s as essential a part of this band’s catalog as anything you already have on a closet shelf or hard drive. But the EP will be included on the expanded reissue of The Bends next month, so I guess you can pick it up that way.) The fingerpicked, acoustic “Lozenge Of Love” is like finding a long-lost Nick Drake track. Make that a really good long-lost Nick Drake track.

5. “Meeting In The Aisle” (1997)
This glistening, shining instrumental comes from the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP (a six-track grabbag of OK Computer outtakes) and serves as one of the band’s earliest attempts at Eno-like ambient-noise sculpture, only with real melodies, beats and identifiable song structures. There are other tracks on this EP that make it well worth the price of admission—spaced-out travelogue “A Reminder” and epic “Polyethylene (Parts 1 & 2)” both come to mind—but “Meeting In The Aisle” is the one that sold me then, and keeps me hanging on now.

16 replies on “The Over/Under: Radiohead”

how could “hail to the thief” be called overrated? near as I can tell, I’m the only one in the world who liked it!

Just because a song is “popular” does not mean it is not worthwhile. I think that every song has it’s purpose and Creep is sort of like I Want to Hold Your Hand or She Loves You. Great early song but obviously not as accomplished or sophisticated as their later music. To continue the analogy, In Rainbows is much more like a “Revolver” or “Magical Mystery Tour”. As with The Beatles, in order to fully appreciate ALL of Radiohead’s music, one must understand both early and later songs. I agree that Creep is not one of my favorites or Thom’s favorite, but that song did indeed create the fire that drove them to create The Bends, which is an incredible album. Also, listen to Hail to the Thief again….you missed something.

How can there be an article on underrated Radiohead songs without going into the subject of songs the band themselves underrates? Like the cast-aside “How Can You Be Sure” and “Maquilladora”? Also, my blood curdles at the thought that “There, There” is being dismissed along with the rest of the not-as-impressive fare on Hail To The Thief.

As for “Electioneering” not fitting in with the theme of disconnection and alienation, you’re right; I don’t see how a song about glad-handing politicians and globally dominant organizations with Orwellian overtones could possibly fit the concept of the album. Wait, where’s the HTML tag for sarcasm?

When I lived in NYC, I always found that I could walk around the Met for hours with Kid A on repeat ad infinitum. It’s a fantastic backdrop to accompany bustling crowds and visual imagery. It’s a very cinematic record, as displayed in “Vanilla Sky.”

High and Dry is overrated???? come on, it’s a wonderful song that has a very powerful melody. Sorry, but while Radiohead has a talented bunch of artists in their lot, and they make some great stuff, but this song is heads above the crap that everyone goes crazy for in the press. Kid A and the rest were so mind numbing with their lack of melody. In Rainbows has some cool stuff, but better to fall asleep to (and that’s not a bad thing) than to really crank up.

Radiohead, please focus on freakin” melodies and get your head out of the computer. OK Computer was the last record you could hum along to! Gee, that’s the same time you stopped writing SONGS!

Kudos, however, for including Blow Out. Most people follow the band’s cue and hate on the first record for no reason. Glad to know they’re reissuing the Bends in expanded format!

I’ll throw out a few more underrated songs:
– let down
– I might be wrong
– a punchup at a wedding
– jigsaw falling into place

The verse of “High & Dry” nicks the melody from….. some ’70s easy-listening song that I’m always remembering then forgetting for months, then remembering again…. i’ve forgotten it for months now, please help. it’s not ‘girl from impanena’ which keeps getting in the way… it’s…. you know, like burt bacharach, or america, or…. erg… whenever i finally remember the song, i start hating “high & dry” all over again.

by the way, i disagree with these beatles comparisons, album-to-album-wise… even in the thick of the beatles artiest records, there were still grab-bags full of memorable melodies….

you’re dissing The National Anthem??! seriously? I remember playing this for the first time on my little cd player and being blown away. i played Kid A over and over and over. it was all amazing. it confused me that other people didn’t like it. The National Anthem comes in and says quite strongly, ‘hey, we’re going in a different direction.’ it’s an excellent song. i just can’t believe you’re calling it ‘lame’ here.

Hail to the Thief was a great album with songs that seemed immediate. they were pissed off. plus, some great dance songs on there as well.

actually, i don’t agree with much you are saying here, but to each his own. I just hope you can come up with more intelligible adjectives than ‘lame.’ i expect a whole lot more from Magnet.

I got off the train when Kid A came out. I could see that there was much technical merit in what they were doing and it was nice that it got so much recognition, but it left me very cold. Now, I am bemused by noticing at parties how Kid A, Amnesiac, or HTTT only gets called up when the weed comes out. Ugh. There’s a buzz ruined.

“Hail to the thief” sucked, bad….and I don’t care how hip anyone thinks they are by saying they loved that album….it sucked. Try spinning a little Skinny Puppy and it may turn you’re mind back around….unless that isn’t “hip”, “cool” , or “underground” enough … then in that case, watch out….you headed for a short social recognition.

The most underated song by Radiohead is “Air Bag”……hands down.

While I might not agree with 100% you have to say it is far superior to the fan bating that Andrew Earls takes part in, shooting at scared cows might be fun but it does not provide any real insight. At least with this method you do not treat all the band’s matireal with the same broad brush. Oh and Andrew is not nearly as funny as he thinks he is.

“Everything in its Right Place” is my favorite Radiohead song. I also love everything else on Kid A (except “Motion Picture Soundtrack”) Hail to the Thief is a great record! All of it. I know everyone thinks OK Computer is their masterpiece (and it may be), but it pales next to Kid A, in my opinion. I disagree with the “National Anthem” dis. I mean, yeah, it has a cro-magnon bassline and *gasp* horns, but somehow it totally and convincingly rocks.

While I disagree with your assessment of songs like “The National Anthem”, “Electioneering”, “High and Dry”, etc. I give you kudos for good calls on “Blow Out”, the How Am I Driving EP and, of course, Kid A (which is my favorite Radiohead album). I’d like to offer up some pics (in no particular order), not necessarily of underrated songs, but moreso of lost gems or tracks that you just don’t hear about much, but are nonetheless stellar:

1) “Follow Me Around” – One of those great b-sides that has never seen a proper recording. The version played on Meeting People is Easy, during a soundcheck, is just awesome, especially how it slowly evolves into a full-band jam.

2) “Nude” – One of my only disappointments with In Rainbows is that albums version of “Nude”, another great b-side holdover from the OK Computer era. Great as it is, the In Rainbows version doesn’t reach the greatness of early live recordings (and also found on MPIE) floating around. And unlike the beautifully subdued IR version, Thom sings his ass off on here.

3) “Gagging Order” – Easily the best thing on the Com Lag EP, this is a beautiful, fingerpicked little masterpiece, along the same lines and every bit as good as “True Love Waits”.

4) “A Reminder” – From the aforementioned How Am I Driving EP, this is a wonderful, dark, shuffling track that, while I liked it from the start but not as much as other songs on the EP, over the years has become one of my favorites on HAID?

5) “Thinking About You” – A great, simple acoustic track from Pablo Honey that still gets me. Forever a soundtrack for lost/unrequited love.

6) “Where I End and You Begin” – While I do like Hail to the Thief, I agree that, among their catalog, it is one of their weaker albums full of good ideas that just didn’t live up to what they could have been. “There There” is probably considered the best song on the album, but “WIEAYB” is a soaring rocker propelled by killer bass riffs that just doesn’t get the recognition it should.

7) “Motion Picture Soundtrack” – While this song can seem slight at first, it beautifully opens up in bright vivid colors and, along with tracks like “Videotape” and “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, proves that Radiohead really know how to close and album

8) “Sulk” – On album full of them, the Bends is loaded with great, oversized, arena-ready rockers and “Sulk” is probably one of the best but is sometimes overshadowed by other, better-known tracks.

9) “Let Down” – While this song has a more traditional structure to it than other tracks on OK Computer, sounding more akin to tracks from The Bends, this nevertheless had “single” written all over it with a great build up into an uplifting crescendo that is a standout on an already amazing album.

10) “Worrywort” – From the “Knives Out” single, this is a beautifully chill, sun-drenched song with some sad but ultimately uplifting lyrics that, despite Radiohead’s proclivity for electronics, still (to me anyway) sounds unlike a lot of their stuff for it’s heavy use of them.

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